Joseph Priestley — the Science Historian

Joseph Priestley is pretty well known as the discoverer of the gas we now call oxygen. He was a brilliant scientist and had a very methodical mind. His fame rests primarily on the series of researches into the chemical properties of different gases, collected together under three volumes called Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air.

There is, however, a less widely known aspect of Priestley’s scholarship that is no less brilliant. He was one of the first persons to write complete histories of scientific disciplines.

In 1767, Priestley’s book The History and Present State of Electricity was published. It was a massive 500-page book that started with the ancient Greek knowledge of the attractive powers of amber. It made its way, through all the major milestones in the development of electrostatics, to the then recent experiments of his contemporaries and friends like Benjamin Franklin. The book contains numerous obscure and forgotten experiments that are just as intriguing as the more famous ones. Priestley also included some of his own experiments, as the subtitle suggests.

The cover page of Priestley’s book on electricity

The book was presumably well received, for Priestley soon followed it up with another book on history of science, this time on light. The History and Present State of Discoveries relating to Vision, Colour, and Light came out in 1772.

The book on light

The preface to the second book on light reveals Priestley’s thinking behind these massive projects.

In order to facilitate the advancement of all the branches of useful science, two things seem to be principally requisite. The first is, an historical account of their rise, progress, and present state; and the second, an easy channel of communication for all new discoveries. Without the former of these helps, a person… labours under great disadvantages… finding himself anticipated in the discoveries he makes.

p.i, Preface, Light

In the preface, Priestley goes on to say how the knowledge in each branch of science was so vast and scattered in numerous books and languages, that there was a pressing need for someone to put it all together. Priestley acknowledges that the success of the book on electricity motivated him, and now he intended to embark on a very ambitious project to write similar books in all major branches of science.

It will be seen, in the preface to the first edition of the history of electricity, that I then considered the history of all the branches of experimental philosophy as too great an undertaking for any one person; but, like the fox with respect to the lion, a nearer view has familiarised it to me, and I now look upon it not only without dread, but with a great deal of pleasure;…(and) as a very practicable business.

p.iii, Preface, Light

However, in spite of his enthusiasm and confidence, Priestley never wrote any more histories of science. Perhaps it was the research on gases that occupied his time and mind completely. Nevertheless, the two histories that he did write are both absolute gems and a valuable source of knowledge for students of science and science history even today.

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